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Editorial

Gas explosions

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During the worst days this country faced in its contemporary history, now dimming in memory, of LTTE and JVP terror, people waited with trepidation for news of the number of deaths on any given day in the evening television news bulletins. The wheel has now turned a full circle and many people, during the last few days waited for word on how many gas explosions had occurred that day. Last week, Consumer Affairs Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna admitted in Parliament that an average of 10 explosions were being reported daily. He admitted the fact that 40 percent of over five million households in the country were living in fear, wondering (like in the terror days, we might add) when another explosion would hit.

 

After much waffling and obfuscation by the gas suppliers – one state-owned and the other private – the responsible political authority has taken responsibility saying “We’re on the side of the consumer.” It could not have been otherwise, although such was not the case in the ill-thought chemical fertilizer ban where both the producer and consumer were hit. The president appointed a committee of inquiry, after 14 explosions and fires in a single day, setting a two-week deadline for a report. A cross-party parliamentary investigation at which gas supply company representatives were present happened later in the week. The expertise of the Moratuwa University and the laboratory of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has been mobilized. But their was no clear word as this is being written of how and why the country has been landed in this mess.

 

Litro Gas, a subsidiary of the state-owned insurance corporation, said soon after the fireworks started that gas explosions have been occurring for a number of years though not a frequently or as close to each other as in recent days. The gas supplier has taken out full page advertisements in the print media suggesting that technical faults in regulators, gas cookers etc. and negligence in kitchens may be partly attributable to what is happening.  But there is no escaping the reality that the problem intensified after the propane-butane composition of the gas pumped into cylinders have changed. There is scant comfort to be taken from the statement that there is no set criterion about these matters laid down by the Sri Lanka Standards Institution. But there is no credible explanation of why this is so and why the problem was allowed to exist for years without necessary regulatory action. Welcome news on Thursday was that the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka was taking on the job. Better late than never.

 

But the inescapable reality is that changes in the composition followed increases in global gas prices with local price controls not adjusted accordingly. Laugfs was authorized to raise their prices while Litro, as an obvious concession to seething consumer anger of the dizzy rise in prices of everyday essentials retained previous price levels. Obviously the taxpayer will have to pick up the tab for the political establishment choosing not to be more unpopular. This was rather like something that happened in the petrol/diesel sector where LIOC raised prices while CPC maintained existing price levels. Obviously most motorists preferred to tank up at CPC while its competitor was happy to sell less because every liter sold at less than than the procurement cost eroded the bottom line. People chose the more expensive alternative only when there were shortages and they had brave long queues at filling stations. So also with gas when Laugfs cost more than Litro. But unlike petrol/diesel you had to have the right cylinder, be it blue or yellow, to get a refill from either supplier.

 

There have been a number of explosions since a gas cylinder exploded at an upmarket restaurant in Colombo on November 20 gutting the premises. Since then there have been dozens of explosions and fires countrywide, all of them grabbing headlines. For the past several weeks there have been cooking gas shortages inducing people to try to snap-up the few kerosene cookers available in the market or return to firewood cooking difficult in urban neighborhoods. “No gas” signs were freely visible everywhere and we’re told that some ships carrying supplies are due in the very short term. But in the context of the squeeze on the country’s foreign exchange reserves and the fear of fuel shortages thereby triggered, consumers fear continuing availability of supplies.

A Colombo datelined photograph of a man having his breakfast seated on a gas cylinder at a wayside restaurant was widely published globally illustrating a report of “mystery” gas explosions here. People have also not forgotten that it was not long ago that the then Chairman/CEO of Litro Gas refused to reveal his monthly emoluments, believed to exceed a million rupees. He told an inquiring reporter that this was a matter for the shareholders of the company and not the press. Since then his successor, presumably drawing similar emoluments,  chose to allege a gas supply Mafia. This drew a strong protest and a demand for an inquiry from the predecessor. There has been no word on whether there was such an inquiry and if so what has been determined. True, monthly pay cheques running into millions in today’s depreciated currency are not uncommon in the private sector today. But that is not yet true of the public sector although many a political bigwig costs the taxpayer that much and more if all their perks are quantified. But if Litro was/is spending millions on its top honcho, the public could rightfully expect a safe gas cylinder and stability of supply. But people today have to pour soapy water on gas regulators to see whether it bubbles and store their cylinders outdoors for fear of fire and explosions.

 



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Editorial

Defeat bid to sandbag whistleblowers

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Tuesday 25th January, 2022

The government would have the public believe it is keen to ensure that there will be one law for everyone, but one wonders whether there is any law in this country at present, for the ruling party politicians, their cronies and bureaucratic lackeys are enjoying unbridled freedom to do as they please. They are now on a witch-hunt against a whistleblower.

Former Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority Thushan Gunawardena, who exposed the Sathosa garlic racket, and won accolades from the public and got under the skin of many a crook in the process, has been prevented from going overseas. He went to the BIA, the other day, to leave for Dubai only to be turned back by the Immigration and Emigration officials, who curtly told him that he could not proceed, and they were doing their job. He was left with no alternative but to return home. There is no court order preventing him from leaving the country, and he has never been involved in any criminal activity. But someone does not want him to leave the country. There is a prima facie case of fundamental rights violation, and Gunawardena must invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court against those who prevented him from leaving the country.

Racketeers are going places thanks to their links to the government while hostile action is being taken against an intrepid whistleblower. Civic-conscious officials like Gunawardena deserve national recognition; the government should have given him a reward. Instead, a witch-hunt has got underway against him.

Why racketeers are harassing Gunawardena is not difficult to see; they want to discourage whistleblowing. They will be in serious trouble if other public officials emulate Gunawardena and pluck up courage to expose corruption.

Thankfully, Gunawardena is made of sterner stuff and has chosen to take the bull by the horns. It is incumbent upon everyone who abhors corruption to come forward to protect the whistleblower in the crosshairs of fraudsters including politicians, who are using various methods to sandbag upright public officials into pandering to their whims and fancies.

A tainted Central Bank Governor left the country via the BIA even after being exposed for his involvement in the Treasury bond scams. Arjuna Mahendran was his name. (He is said to be living in Singapore under some other name.) Those who helped Mahendran make good his escape are often heard pontificating on accountability, the rule of law, etc., in Parliament. Mervyn of Kelaniya helped a drug kingpin, known as Kudu Lal, flee the country through the BIA during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government while the STF was closing in on the criminal who had been supplying hell dust to the entire Colombo District for years. LTTE leaders were allowed to travel via the BIA sans any security checks in the early noughties with public officials, the police and some military officers dancing attendance on them. They brought in huge bags full of undeclared goods, which were airlifted to the LTTE-controlled areas, without any checks. They were given VIP treatment a few months after a devastating LTTE attack on the BIA in 2001. The then Airport manager treated the senior Tigers to barbecues in the name of peacemaking! Politicians who have stolen colossal amounts of public funds and have bankrupted the country are also free to travel through the BIA. But a public official who dared blow the whistle on a mega racket for the sake of the public, and lost his job as a result, is now prevented from going through the same airport without rhyme or reason!

Let Gunawardena and other whistleblowers be urged not to lose heart. They can rest assured that all Sri Lankans who abhor corruption are solidly behind him. One can only hope that professional associations such as the Bar Association of Sri Lanka will stand by courageous Sri Lankans like Gunawardena and help defeat sinister attempts being made in some quarters to intimidate them.

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Editorial

Of that trial balloon

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Monday 24th January, 2022

What was feared seems to be playing out. MP Diana Gamage, who crossed over to the government from the SJB, has urged Parliament to extend President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term by two years because she thinks he has lost two years owing to the pandemic. Gamage’s call has come close on the heels of President Rajapaksa’s statement that a youth recently asked him why a referendum could not be conducted to ask the people whether his term should be extended by two years on account of the pandemic. Curiously, the President does not seem to have heard what young men and women say about his government via social media!

Former President Maithripala Sirisena, asked by reporters to comment on MP Gamage’s proposal, the other day, said that before commenting thereon, one had to know what President Rajapaksa had to say about it. His answer was evasive, but he was not without a point. The fact however remains that Gamage would not have dared say anything of that nature without the blessings of the government leaders although the SLPP has said she made that call unbeknownst to the President.

MP Gamage is thought to be trying to ingratiate herself with the powers further, but there seems to be more to her call than meets the eye. Those who have introduced the 18th and 20th Amendments are not likely to scruple to do anything that helps tighten their grip on power.

When power goes to their heads, politicians take leave of their senses. But there is always a method in their madness. The government has already done something similar, in principle, to MP Gamage’s proposal at issue, where the Local Government institutions are concerned. Elections to them have been put off, and one of the reasons given for the arbitrary extension of their terms by one year is that they could not function properly for about two years under the yahapalana government.

We have already witnessed the disastrous consequences of the arbitrary extensions of parliamentary terms. In 1975, the SLFP-led United Front (UF) government extended the life of Parliament by two years; the UNP swept the 1977 parliamentary polls and obtained a five-sixths majority, which it abused to weaken democracy. That UNP regime became synonymous with the suppression of democratic dissent, abuse of power, corruption and the sale of state assets among other things. That was the price people had to pay for giving the UF a two-thirds majority in 1970, and the UNP a five-sixths majority seven years later.

The postponement of the general election scheduled for 1982 with the help of a heavily-rigged referendum created conditions for the second JVP uprising and the resultant bloodbath. The Jayewardene government proscribed the JVP in a bid to scuttle the latter’s campaign against the outcome of the referendum. Those who do not learn from history are said to be condemned to repeat it.

Politicians curry favour with their bosses by pandering to the latter’s whims and fancies. After the defeat of the LTTE, sycophants misled the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa into believing that he could become the President for life, and he introduced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to achieve that end. In 2015, he sought a third term and had a grand pratfall, instead. The rest is history. Had he made use of the rare opportunity that presented itself after the end of the war to rebuild the economy, revive democracy, restore the rule of law, fight bribery and corruption and usher in development, perhaps, the people themselves would have asked him to serve another presidential term.

Only two years of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term have elapsed, and three more years are left for him to improve his government’s performance. The task is daunting but not impossible. Most members of the current government were out of power for five years without any accretions to their wealth, but they have already made up for lost time, if their vulgar display of opulence is any indication. The question is why they cannot act so tenaciously to help the President carry out his pledges, and win over the public so that they will not have to fear elections.

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Editorial

Down the pallang

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Sri Lanka is now in the grip of what is probably the worst economic crisis it has known in its post-Independence history. Inflation is at a historic high. The rupee is at a historic low. People are queuing for cooking gas and milk food. The cost of living has gone through the roof and opposition politicians are talking about the price of a single carrot or bean pod. What the ill-thought, almost overnight ban on the import of chemical fertilizers has done to the rural farming community, that massively supported the election of the present regime, is visible in protests countrywide. The government paid off a dollar bond of USD 500 million last week as promised. While there has been no debt default up to now, with Sri Lanka retaining its impeccable repayment record, the bonds were settled in the teeth of opposition by several reputed economists. They urged that it is better to fund vital imports, desperately needed by ordinary people here, than foreign bond holders. Governor Cabraal took another view.

The story goes on. Intermittent power shedding in various parts of the country is a daily occurrence. This has been forced on the CEB by its lack of dollars to pay the CPC to which it is indebted to the tune of billions, to supply its needs. Our only oil refinery at Sapugaskanda is closed as there are no dollars to pay for crude oil to sustain it. The ministers of power and energy, holding two different portfolios when commonsense dictates that the subjects go together, are at each other’s throats. Minister Gammanpila’s argument that it is better to suffer sporadic power cuts rather than face a total blackout down the road is not without merit. He has also to balance the needs of both the transport and power sectors in doling out the little stocks he controls. Judging by his recent statements, he seems to believe that transport deserves priority.

Where do we go from here? Down the pallang, most people fear. It is true that the country has proved resilient facing daunting challenges in the past. Today there are gas queues and milk powder queues highlighted in the evening television news bulletins most days. Older readers would remember many more queues under the dispensation of the Sirima Bandaranaike-led United Front government of which both the LSSP and the Communist Party were constituents. Then there were bread queues, flour queues, sugar queues, rice barriers (best known as haal pollas) and what have you. The 1978 (not 1977 as commonly mis-stated) economic liberalization put an end to the scarcities the people had long suffered. But at a price. A heavy price, some would add.

The Island, our stablemate, in a thought provoking article titled “THE DOLLAR CRISIS: What aggravated it,” provides some pertinent answers to what many consider the root of our problems today. The engineer-writer reminds us that the Gal Oya Scheme, the biggest post-Independence development project undertaken by the government of then Ceylon, was funded by our own resources. Then in the 1950s, this country (still Ceylon) undertook the major Colombo Harbour Development Scheme. Engineer D. Godage, the writer of the article under reference, says that made the Port of Colombo one of most modern (probably regional) ports of the time. The late Mr. Tissa Chandrasoma, a reputed civil servant of the day who headed the Port Commission and held several other port related jobs , says there were plans to develop Trincomalee port too at the time. Given the strategic location of what remains one of the world’s finest natural harbours, and the proximate British built tank farm providing massive storage capacity, forging ahead with such a project may have propelled Sri Lanka to where Singapore presently is as the regional shipping hub.

We were fortunate that the global scene as it was in the seventies enabled the 1977 government of President J.R. Jayewardene to compress the massive Mahaweli Development irrigation and hydro-electricity project from the planned 30 years to about six years. This was possible due to the then availability of concessional international credit and grant assistance. The resultant benefits are well known. And they did not lead us to the debt crisis, or debt trap as some would have it, of today. The borrowing sprees that followed to fund what have been described as mere vanity projects to satisfy the egos of elected political leaders, are a different kettle of fish. Several of these are named after the then president and are located in his home turf of Hambantota.

While it is true that the major highways paid for with borrowed funds and built at massive cost has improved connectivity in this island of ours, whether they are earning their keep and paying their way is an open question. So also the Norochcholai coal power plant with a record of frequent breakdowns and environmental cost. There is no question that with the rising demand for power of more recent years have been met thanks to Norochcholai. According to a 2016 report of the External Resources Department cited by the author of the ‘dollar crisis’ article, 28 projects costing approx. USD 7.8 billion were funded by China’s Exim Bank at interest rates speculated to be around six percent. All these are “said to have been” initiated by unsolicited tender, he says. He also quotes a newspaper headline, “Normal tender procedures are not possible for mega projects: PBJ.” The then Treasury Secretary and later Secretary to the President has now left office.

China will be gifting us with a million tons of rice in March to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Rubber-Rice Pact, the newspapers blared last week. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” is a threadbare, albeit proven, cliché. Or is there a free lunch somewhere out there?

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